Murnau, Lang, and Weine, three of the most world renowned German Expressionist Filmmakers of the post Weimer era. It was at the dawn of the 1920s that Germany experienced a renaissance of art, which incorporated elements and ideas from Dadaism and early Surrealism. In film, the aesthetic translation of these components is breathtaking and wholly original.
The genre’s main concern is with the mentality and emotional content of the character. The expressionists took character out of the confines of the actor, and truly made it the entire production. Weine’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, of 1921, manipulates the entire set to convey the mental turmoil of its protagonist. Walls were painted with a variety of images, often using depth to create the illusion that the actors occupied a space within an expressionist painting. To further the dementia within the piece, actors adorn make up that gives them an “illustrated” quality, i.e. Dr. Caligari himself. Likewise, in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, shadows are used to indicate the emotional upheaval of the “last doorman”. Murnau first deploys this method in a scene where “the last doorman” enters the latrine, which is completely blacked out in shadow, which to “the doorman” is a kind of hell on earth. Secondly, shadow is used very well upon the “doorman’s entrance to his housing development. First, the audience sees his shadow, stooped and weak. Then, the “doorman” retreats, only to re-enter permanently, proceeded by a shadow showing us a man standing upright and proud. In each scenario, Murnau has deployed this tactic effectively to indicate the “doorman’s situation. However, Murnau reserves his lavish sets for control in The Last Laugh, where Weine used his sets for both purposes [though Lang would out do them both with Die Nebgulen]. In later years, German director Werner Herzog cited the unconventional manipulation of environment to convey character’s emotion and drive as a motive to not only film in harsh environments [a sort of reverse to the expressionist ideal logy of sets and control], but to hypnotize the cast of his film Heart of Glass [to establish an other worldliness].
Weine’s use of set was not only stylistic, but enabled him to control and manipulate his environment. Weine never employed this tactic quite like Murnau did in both Nosferatu and The Last Laugh. Murnau’s use of sets first became a focal point of his productions in Nosteratu. The sequence with Nosferatu atop his sail ship, with waves and rain thrashing all about is totally artificial. The rain through out The Last Laugh is also artificial, as is everything for that matter, since the entire film was shot on a soundstage. Even more incredible than Murnau’s illusion of the elements, is the grandeur of his set work, incorporating a locomotive, an apartment block, and a main drag, complete with automobiles. This also enabled Murnau to have complete control over his lighting, his extras, etc. Weine’s film shot on a more modest budget several years’ earlier, limits its manipulation to décor [as touched on already], lighting and wind [such as in the opening sequence where leaves are blown about]. The evolution of set pieces would be taken even further over the next few years in the films of Fritz Lang.
The concerns of these filmmakers, control, psyche, and the blending of the two, become an unusual style for the themes of their work. All three films feature at their core an antagonist who holds some sort of authority position [Count Orlock, Dr Caligari/Warden, and hotel manager]. It is the protagonist who is the unsuspecting victim of authority [Jonathan Harker, “Last Doorman”] and who holds such simple-minded dreams as marriage and position that have become synonymous with the working class. These values as well as fears of authority were quite common both under and after the rule of the Keizer. That is to say, that despite stylization, and a morbid fascination with the “mind as image”, these artists were quite social minded in their expressionist depictions. One need only read into the subtleties of Emil Jennings performance in The Last Laugh, to see how much Murnau knew of Germany’s working class. Even in Lang’s work, parallels to Futurism can be seen [weather if he or his wife are responsible we don’t know] that point toward some great violent solution to Germany’s aristocratic problem as foretold in the allegorical ending to Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in which the hero and challenger of the norm is the insane one.